Running for political office is daunting if you don’t have much money. It’s also tough for regular voters to compete against political donors with deep pockets.

But Seattle has devised a novel way to level the playing field for both candidates and voters that could potentially work in cities like Atlanta: democracy vouchers.

Here’s how it works: Every Seattle resident who’s 18 or over is automatically mailed four $25 vouchers that they can distribute to the candidate(s) of their choice. They must be U.S. citizens or green-card holders–but they don’t need to be registered voters.

“For residents, it increases the donor pool. Not everybody has $100 floating around,” Renee LeBeau, the program’s manager told Atlanta Civic Circle. “And for candidates, it helps with fundraising options. It’s a chance to use public dollars to help finance their campaigns.”

Teresa Mosqueda became the first new candidate to win a seat on the Seattle City Council in 2017 using democracy vouchers. The third-generation Mexican-American was the first-ever renter to sit on Seattle’s city council in a city where over half the residents are renters. She won a second term in November, again using vouchers. 

All told, she raised about $600,000 for both her campaigns through vouchers and private donations. 

Mosqueda, who was elected citywide, told Atlanta Civic Circle she used the vouchers as “a way to show people that their voice and their vote matters.” 

Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda

“It shows that you can change the makeup of who can see themselves running,” Mosqueda said. “People don’t have to screen themselves out by worrying that they need to self-finance a campaign.”

Candidates choose whether to participate, and there are spending caps. The maximum a mayoral candidate can raise through vouchers and private donations, for example, is about $800,000. Fundraising for candidates who don’t use vouchers is unlimited. 

While there are other cities and states that provide public campaign financing, Seattle’s democracy voucher program is the first of its kind. 

Seattle voters approved the voucher program in 2015, and it was deployed for the first time in the 2017 election cycle. It is financed through a $3 million property tax levy that is earmarked to fund it through 2025 and administered by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.

Only 1% to 2% of the city’s residents used to donate to political campaigns, but that has jumped to about 8% thanks to the voucher program, said LeBeau, explaining that many Seattle residents are working-class with little disposable income to donate to campaigns.

Last year, 48,068 Seattle residents used 184,734 democracy vouchers to contribute almost $3.4 million to 11 campaigns, including Mosqueda’s. 

Mosqueda believes vouchers could benefit other cities, including Atlanta, saying that the voucher program makes running for city council a possibility for a broader range of candidates.

“Instead of two white, straight men running, which happened previously, there were eight people running for my seat–made up of women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community,” she said.

Local campaign finance experts contacted by Atlanta Civic Circle were unfamiliar with the democracy voucher program. 

To create a similar program in Georgia, it’s likely that individual municipalities would have to approve it, and the General Assembly would need to pass legislation governing how the vouchers are administered, according to Haley Brown of the Georgia Government Transparency & Campaign Finance Commission.

Seattle resident Joseph Lachman embraced the vouchers when they became available in 2017. Lachman is a policy analyst for Asian Counseling and Referral Service, which serves over 30,000 Asian and Pacific Islanders in Seattle, providing social services in over 40 languages.

“There’s a lot of concern locally that major corporate influence dwarfs small donations from community members. And this helps as a counterbalance to that,” he said.

With the voucher program, people can support candidates “without having to use up their own personal money that would go towards basic needs,” Lachman said.

“It has meant a lot to me to be able to tell our community members that they have another way of expressing their voice in our local democracy,” he said, adding that explanatory materials for the democracy vouchers actually come in more languages than for Seattle’s regular election materials.

Particularly since the Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United decision, America’s campaign finance system favors wealthy donors and the candidates they back. But public financing, like Seattle’s democracy vouchers, that amplify the contributions of small donors could remedy that, according to the Brennan Center for Justice

The Brennan Center found that New York City’s multiple-match system, which matches a $50 individual donation to send a total of $350 to the individual’s designated candidate, has helped to curtail the influence of special interests and empower average voters. 

The For the People Act, currently stalled in Congress, would overhaul the nation’s campaign finance system, in part by beefing up public financing.

Daniel G. Newman featured Seattle’s democracy voucher program in his nonfiction graphic novel Unrig: How to Fix Our Broken Democracy, which Atlanta Civic Circle’s virtual book club has been reading. We are excited to announce that he is our guest speaker for the final meeting on Jan. 12 at 7 p.m. All are welcome! Sign up here

ACC’s democracy book club is made possible with support from Georgia Humanities.

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